Posted in match reports

View from the south stand: Sale 26 Wasps 18

The march up the table starts here. Five league points to none, up from eleventh to ninth, top four awaits…

Yeah, yeah. Let’s not get carried away. There’s plenty to enjoy about this result – the move up the table not the least – but there are still areas of concern, and to ignore them is to set oneself up for disappointment.

So let’s have a quick review of some of the more obvious issues.

Once again, we go nearly half the game without scoring. It’s got to the point where, after the third try, I was pretty sure that that was the scoring done for the game. Having the ‘fourth’ try wiped off only strengthened that fear. When Ben scored the real fourth try (how was that not ruled out for forward motion? Don’t diss Tempest too much: I suspect most other refs would have pulled that back), I was briefly hopeful that we would buck the trend; but it was not to be.

The trouble with going for extended periods of a game without scoring – even if it’s just penalties – is that it starts to prey on the mind: will we ever score again? Can we score again? You then start to find yourself fighting a rearguard action and soon you start butchering even those chances you do get.

Which, possibly, goes some way to explaining the second issue I wanted to highlight, which is an uncanny ability to give away penalties when attacking. I mean, defences giving away penalties, yes – you’re on the edge, trying to stop a threat. But in attack you should be in control, dominating, not buggering everything up by diving off feet and giving the initiative back to the oppo.

Oh, and we were six minutes – six sodding minutes – away from a cardless game, when…


Now, there are two ways of looking at this game. You could say “yes, it was a five-point win, but there remain systemic problems”. Or – and this is the one I’m going to go with myself – you could say “yes, some systemic problems remain but, hey, we got five points out of this one and gave them nothing”.

In other words, I’m looking at this as being indicative that we can overcome (and are overcoming) the problems that are evident and, by opposing, end them.

Mind you, gifting Wasps a try after three minutes was not a great way to start the year. I could just imagine Forsh having an apoplectic fit at the amount of space they were given out wide for Basset to score an easy try. Fortunately, Gopperth was having an off day with the boot, otherwise the final score would have been much closer.

But that was really the only wobble in the whole first half. For the rest of it, this was pretty much the Sale we want to see. Watch the full match replay at around the ten-minute mark. There’s some cracking play here – intelligent offloads, crisp passing, good running lines. Jean-Luc’s try was more or less inevitable after a few minutes of that.

And it continued: a Wasps attack was halted and turned over, Bev scrambled away with it, defence became attack and there was Marland squeezing into the corner for the second try.

Say what you like about Marland; he may not be the quickest in the business, but if you want someone to score in the tightest of spaces, he’s your man. Add to that his work rate and the fact that any opposition player receiving a high ball is likely to have Marland in his face while he’s doing it and I will continue to maintain that he’s more than worth his place in the team. Perm any two for the other positions, Marland is always in my preferred back three.

Then, just before the half-hour mark, Rohan picked up after a sniping run from Cliffy (yes, really!) and bullied over from fully two metres out. Things were looking really positive. Could we get the bonus point before half-time?

For a moment, there, we thought we had. But—

Look; these guys are professionals, they’re supposed to know the laws. They should at least know that, if the ref’s got his arms raised, the lineout isn’t over and the offside line is still ten metres back. Blimey, I’ve seen so many penalties given for exactly that this season that there can be no doubt that you have to stay back until the ref’s arms go down, even if he has already called ‘maul’. You can’t join the maul until it has moved away from the line of the throw (or out of the five to fifteen-metre area).

So why did Rob move early? Why did AJ appear to encourage him to go in? Why did they seem bemused when a perfectly good try was wiped out by a boneheaded act? Of all the dumb penalties a player can give away, I genuinely think that offside ranks as possibly the dumbest.

And breathe…

The second half started well, with Ben scoring three minutes in. Going on matches I’ve watched this season, I was convinced that Tempest was going to call it back for a double movement, but he let it stand. I mean, I’m not complaining, but it looked to me as if Ben’s knee moved to propel him to the line.

But it stood, AJ converted and we were thinking ‘right, let’s push on and go large’.

Yeah, right. Where the first half saw crisp passing and destructive offloads the second half gave us limp fumbles and startled rabbits. That the possession and territory stats ended up around 50–50 tells you all you need to know.

So, for half an hour, nowt happened apart from a Gopperth penalty to bring the score to 26–11. To be fair, the defence was immense. But it shouldn’t have needed to be quite so immense – there should have been some serious attacking play to make an immense defence moot.

But we were holding on reasonably comfortably until six minutes from the end.

Oh, Coenie. We were that close to our fifth cardless match and you blew it. Six minutes of panicky scrambling later and Wasps have the lineout five metres out. Seven thousand Mystic Megs were all thinking ‘they’re going to score, aren’t they?’ and seven thousand Mystic Megs were right. It was actually embarrassingly easy in the end for Gopperth to stroll over the line.

So a game that should have seen us put forty on them ended up with an eight-point winning margin, enough to push us up two places on points difference. But think, if Gopperth hadn’t bounced that relatively easy penalty off the post in the first half, we’d be tenth, a point behind them. Too, too close for a game that we dominated in the first half.

As I said above, there remain issues to be addressed but this was a bonus-point win to nowt, and that’s important.

AJ back to his best is always a good thing. I can understand giving him man of the match for his distribution and vision. I dread to think what he’ll do when he’s got players like Radradra and Piutau running onto the ball.

Jean-Luc being Jean-Luc. Don’t really need to say any more than that, do I? With Dan putting in just about as much work, we’ve got a hell of a foundation in the back five. Lood quietly getting on with his job was noticed in the deterioration of the lineout when he went off. Ben continues to ask the question “why not me as well, Eddie?” And, to cap it off, a great return from Jono – all the work, all the aggression, less of the boneheadedness. I still think he should retire for his own sake, though.

I think if he’d stayed on for another ten minutes, my personal MoM award would have gone to Bevan. He gets better as a prop with each game and his work in the loose is just stellar. I think he had a crucial part in at least three of the tries, if not all four. Retrieving, carrying, disrupting; he seemed to be involved in everything – it was Bev giving Jean-Luc the push to get over the line for the first try. It was Bev who retrieved the ball to set up the counterattack for Marland’s try and he was in the thick of the build-up to Rohan’s.

The backs worked well, especially in the first half. Cliffy was solid and not as slow at the breakdown as some would malign him for: watch the replay, there is some pretty snappy service from him throughout the first half. Behind AJ… it’s got to be said: our backs are better in defence than attack. Defensively tighter than a duck’s fundamental orifice, they still need someone with a bit of gas to really exploit all those neat moves that we saw in the first half.

So, my reaction after a couple of days’ reflection? Qualified ecstatic, I’d say. Pretty happy with the result, need to see it built on, though. Do one on Bristol next game and I’ll start to be a bit more positive about the prospects for this season. At the moment, though, I’m of the opinion that Sale are fully capable of being both the first team to beat Leicester this season and the first team to lose to Bath. Rollercoasters await…



Photographer and science geek. Rugby fan (Sale Sharks).